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Broadly defined, time is a constitutive element of worlds and a fundamental category of human experience. Strictly speaking, time is not observable but it becomes manifest and thus perceivable in various changes (e.g. event). Together with the spatial parameters of height, width, and depth, time is the fourth dimension which makes it possible to locate and measure occurrences. Besides this general idea, time is culturally constructed, and thus concepts of time vary as a result of historical evolution.

In a narrower sense, from the perspective of narrative theory, time is both a dimension of the narrated world (as conceived in the broader sense) and an analytical category (‘tense’) which describes the relation between different narrative tiers.


Due to its elementary quality, time is widely discussed in philosophy, physics, and aesthetics. St Augustine claims that time is hard to grasp even though one has an intuitional notion of it (Augustine 1992: 154). This is not only one of the most prominent commonplaces referred to throughout discussions about time, but also makes the inherent tension in time apparent, i.e. its slippery, but basic nature. Against the background of ancient ideas of time as “a number of changes in respect of the before and after” (Aristotle [1983] 2006: 44 [Physics IV.11, 219b]), Kant’s philosophy of transcendental aesthetics sets a new benchmark by understanding time as both an “empirical reality” and “transcendental ideality” (Kant [1781/1787] 1998: 181 [A35–36/B52]). Kant argues that time is an a priori that is presupposed in all human experience. Newton, however, establishes a fixed idea of time by stating that “[a]bsolute time, without reference to anything external, flows uniformly” ([1726] 1999: 408). This idea dominates everyday concepts of time, even though relativity theory has since shown that an absolute understanding of time and space fails to explain the physical constitution of the world and has to be replaced by a relational model. In classical aesthetics, time serves as a category to differentiate between types of art. In contrast to the visual arts, which are associated with space, the art of speech (poetry and fiction) takes place within time (Lessing [1766] 1962). In particular, narratives—understood as representations of event-sequences—are defined and differentiated by their temporality. A correlation is drawn especially between time and the novel (Lukács [1916] 1971; Pouillon [1946] 1993; Mendilow [1952] 1972; Jauß [1955] 2009; Watt [1957] 1968; Baxtin [1975] 1988). Beyond this, different media have their own ways of forming and presenting time (film: Chatman 1978; Kuhn 2011). Debates on time are, in general, situated at the point of intersection between different disciplines, which in turn partly influence narrative theory (Bender & Wellbery 1991; Nünning & Sommer 2002).

In text-based narratives, time structures the narrated world (‘diegesis’) and is the effect of verbal evocation which emerges from use of tense, deictic expressions, and literary techniques (e.g. leitmotifs). From an analytical point of view, one has to distinguish between three levels of reference which are characterised by their own temporality: ‘story,’ ‘discourse,’ and ‘narrating’ (Genette [1972] 1980). First, ‘story time’ (‘diegetic time’, Souriau 1951) is a constitutive phenomenon of the fictional world (cf. 3.1.1). Like the narrated world, story time is the product of the act of narration and is linked conceptually to ‘event’ (Hühn → Event and Eventfulness), ‘space’ (Ryan → Space), and ‘character’ (Jannidis → Character). Thus story time turns out to be a relative category rather than a fixed one: it is formed by the interplay with other elements of the narrated world (van Fraassen 1991; Weixler & Werner 2014). Second, ‘discourse time’ is the time of telling which is fixed by the text (cf. 3.1.2). And thirdly, ‘narrating time’ is the time of the narrating act which describes the spatiotemporal position of the narrative voice (cf. 3.1.3).

Beyond these systematic differentiations, time per se plays a crucial role for narrativity (Abbott → Narrativity). In discussions about sequentiality and eventfulness, time, along with causality, is considered by some theoreticians to be a necessary condition for narrativity (e.g. Tomaševskij [1925] 1965: 66; Todorov 1971: 38). The temporal dimension is thus used to differentiate between narrative and non-narrative types of text (Herman 2009: 75–104). Moreover, time is not only understood in a purely textual dimension, but also as the reader’s mental construct. Temporal aspects play a crucial role in both reception orientated theories and cognitive theories of narrativity. For instance, Sternberg’s concept of narrativity is based on the interplay “between represented and communicative time” (Sternberg 1992: 529) which results in “three universal narrative effects/interests/dynamics of prospection, retrospection, and recognition,” in other words: “suspense, curiosity, and surprise” (2001: 117). By contrast, Herman’s cognitive theory stresses that “[n]arrative representations cue interpreters to draw inferences about a structured time-course of particularized events” (Herman 2009: 92).

Dimensions of the Concept and History of its Study

Time in the Context of Narrative Representation: Story, Discourse, and Narrating

The following systematic overview of the phenomenology of time in the context of narrative representation concentrates on temporal aspects of verbal narration and follows Genette’s differentiation between ‘story,’ ‘discourse,’ and ‘narrating.’

‘Story Time’: Temporal Order in the Narrated World

‘Story time’ is (a) a world-constitutive dimension which is (b) based on verbal evocation and interplay with other elements of the narrated world and which (c) serves as reference parameter when it comes to defining the relation between the chronological order of ‘story’ and ‘discourse’.

(a) By understanding a “world” as a “constellation of spatiotemporally linked elements,” time becomes its constitutive part (Ronen 1994: 199). In this sense, time frames the setting for events, characters, and action and simultaneously, due to its relational quality, is itself shaped by these elements. Even though the “internal time” of a narrative is independent from extrafictional “external time” (de Toro [1986] 2011: 113)—thus allowing “radical deviations from the regularities of time in the actual world” (Ronen 1994: 202; cf. Šklovskij [1921] 1965: 36)—it is predominantly thought to be “marginally analogous to the system of relations interrelating components of the real world” (Ronen 1994: 200) and may be “pragmatically linked to empirical historical time” (de Toro [1986] 2011: 114).

(b) Time is the product of several techniques of evocation. Tomaševskij differentiates between the following techniques: first, ‘absolute’ (‘12th Nov. 2012’) and ‘relative dating’ (‘five years later’); second, the mentioning of a time period (‘they talked an hour’); and third, the suggestion of ‘duration’ ([1925] 1965: 78). In contrast, de Toro distinguishes between two kinds of concretisation of time: on the one hand, ‘selective concretisation’ as an “exact, almost chronometric, temporal fixation of an event” ([1986] 2011: 138; e.g. ‘after two days,’ ‘he is twelve years old,’ ‘it’s seven o’clock’) and, on the other hand, ‘non-selective concretisation of time’ as “vague, metaphorical positioning” which may be ‘implicit’ or ‘explicit’ (138–39; e.g. ‘Once, X was very known, now he is a nobody;’ or ‘a few weeks have passed’). According to Hamburger, however, ‘story time’ is absent when there are no explicit temporal markers: “If time is not indicated by a term or image, then it is not in the narration. For in poetry [Dichtung], only what is narrated is existent” ([1955] 2011: 90). Yet if the narratological category ‘tense’ is to work, ‘story time’ has to be reconstructed analytically, or at least assumed more implicitly.

In addition to phrases such as those listed above, ‘story time’ emerges from the interplay of space, events, characters, and plot structure. As Baxtin stresses: “In the literary artistic chronotope, spatial and temporal indicators are fused into one carefully thought-out, concrete whole. Time, as it were, thickens, takes on flesh, becomes artistically visible” ([1975] 1988: 84). He points out that in the ‘adventure-time’ of Greek romance, the passage of time “is not registered in the slightest way in the age of the heroes” (90), and that since there are no ‘traces’ of temporal change, time remains “empty” in this pre-modern narrative even though particular episodes are sometimes based on a last-minute rescue scheme (91). From a modern perspective, however, it seems obvious that time is linked to concepts of personhood and identity in general (Bieri [1986] 2011; Currie 2007: 51–73) and thus to biographical models in particular.

(c) ‘Story time’ is the product of these explicit and implicit forms of evocation and is the measure which defines the artificiality of ‘discourse time.’ The standard case is that of a monotonous, linear, and chronological time (Fludernik 2003: 117–18; Werner 2012: 150–51). Narrative theory is only marginally interested in forms of ‘story time’ which differ from the mimetic Newtonian concept. Forms of narrated time such as “circular,” “contradictory,” “antinomic,” “differential,” “conflated,” or “dual/multiple” (Richardson 2002: 48–52), which question the established taxonomy of narratological terms, have been largely neglected (Herman 1998; cf. Richardson’s and Shen’s discussion on temporal anomalies that challenge the story-discourse distinction: Richardson 2002, 2003; Shen 2002, 2003).

‘Discourse Time’ and its Relation to ‘Story Time’: ‘Order,’ ‘Duration,’ ‘Frequency’

‘Discourse time’ is (a) the time “it takes to peruse the discourse” (Chatman 1978: 62), and in this sense is partly a spatial metaphor for the narrating or reading process. Nevertheless, (b) there are several terms for specific relations between ‘story time’ and ‘discourse time.’

(a) Assuming that “[i]n order to narrate a story, the narrator needs a certain span of physical time,” Müller argues that even though this time would normally be measured by a clock, “there is no basic difference between counting the time of narration in minutes or in the number of printed pages” ([1947] 2011: 75–6; cf. Tomaševskij [1925] 1965: 78). Genette is aware of the metaphorical character of discourse time and that the temporality of a text comes, “metonymically” from the process of reading. He thus points out that “we must first take [this] displacement for granted, since it forms part of the narrative game, and therefore accept literally the quasi-fiction of Erzählzeit, this false time standing in for a true time and to be treated—with the combination of reservation and acquiescence that this involves—as a pseudo-time” ([1972] 1980: 34).

(b) In elaborating on time, Genette systematizes ideas propounded by Metz ([1971] 1974), Müller ([1948] 1968), and Lämmert ([1955] 1967), employing the categories of ‘order,’ ‘duration,’ and ‘frequency.’ In relation to ‘order,’ Genette calls the deviations between story and discourse ‘anachronies’ and distinguishes between ‘prolepsis’ (flash-forward) and ‘analepsis’ (flashback). Both can vary in terms of their ‘distance,’ ‘extent,’ and relationship to the ‘main narrative.’ Genette calls the deformation of ‘duration’ ‘anisochrony’ ([1972] 1980: 86). He discerns four types of story-discourse relations: ‘pause,’ ‘scene,’ ‘summary,’ and ‘ellipsis’ (95). ‘Frequency’ outlines the relationship between the number of occurrences in the story and the number of occurrences narrated. In this regard, Genette distinguishes between three modes: ‘singulative’ (telling once what happened once), ‘repetitive’ (telling many times what happened once), and ‘iterative’ (telling once what happened several times [(114–16]). De Toro (1986) extends Genette’s taxonomy by differentiating between ‘explicit’ and ‘implicit’ anachronies and by taking into consideration further phenomena “such as the explicit/implicit permutation of time, the explicit/implicit overlapping of time, the explicit/implicit interdependence of time, [and] the explicit/implicit synchrony, simultaneity and circularity” of time ([1986] 2011: 109).

‘Narrating Time’: The Narrative Voice’s Distance

As it is “almost impossible […] not to locate the story in time with respect to [the] narrating act” (Genette [1972] 1980: 215), Genette distinguishes between four types of ‘narrating time’: ‘subsequent,’ ‘prior,’ ‘simultaneous,’ and ‘interpolated.’ The first type is “the classical position of the past-tense narrative;” the second is a “predictive narrative, generally in the future tense;” the third type is a “narrative in the present contemporaneous with the action;” and the last type is included “between the moments of the action” (217).

In a broader sense, aspects of voice are examined implicitly within discussions of narrative point of view (Pouillon [1946] 1993; Uspenskij [1970] 1973: 65–80; Schmid 2010: 100–06). Traditionally, a narrative combines two different epistemic perspectives of time: the perspective of the characters as well as the analytical and retrospective perspective of the narrator (Martínez & Scheffel [1999] 2012: 125). While Schmid calls the former the ‘figural perspective’ and the latter the ‘narratorial perspective’ (2010: 105), Weber—referring to Bühler ([1934] 2011)—labels the epistemic perspective of the narrator and the character as two ‘centers of orientation’ (Orientierungszentrum I/II) or ‘me-here-now-systems’ (Ich-Hier-Jetzt-Systeme; 1998: 43–8). Generally, the process of narration is understood as a retrospective act of sense-making. In matters of fictional narratives, however, this argument is called into question: e.g. Hamburger and her followers argue that there is no temporal difference per se between narration and the narrated (Hamburger [1957] 1973; cf. Banfield 1982; Avanessian & Hennig 2012, ed. 2013).

With the standard case of narrative in mind, Currie points out that the process of narration “in its mode of fictional storytelling and as a more general mode of making sense of the world” is, paradoxically, based on an “anticipation of retrospection” (referring to Brooks, Currie 2007: 29). Responding critically to Ricœur, amongst others (cf. Meister 2009), Currie outlines three types of prolepsis: ‘prolepsis 1’ is the ‘narratological prolepsis,’ “which takes place within the time locus of the narrated,” thus corresponding to flash-forward in Genette’s sense (2007: 31); ‘prolepsis 2’ is a ‘structural prolepsis,’ “which takes place between the time locus of the narrated and the time locus of the narrator;” and ‘prolepsis 3’ is a ‘rhetorical prolepsis,’ “which takes place between the time locus of the narrator and the time locus of the reader” (31). It is ‘prolepsis 3’ that transcends the textual level—and thus also the Genettian system—by taking the empirical reader into consideration.

The Study of Time in Narrative Theory: A Historical Perspective

In literary and narrative theory, time has been approached following two different traditions of research which overlap with regards to questions of the evocation of time. The first of these traditions centres on the specificity of literary deixis and the use of tense with an interest in grammatical or philosophical questions (Pouillon [1946] 1993; Barthes [1953] 1968; Hamburger [1955] 2011, [1957] 1973; Weinrich 1964; Banfield 1982; Fleischman 1990). The second tradition seeks to describe narratives in terms of temporal deviation between story and discourse. Pursuing the rhetorical differentiation between ordo naturalis and ordo artificialis (Doležel 1990: 127–29; Ernst 2000), these discussions of time emerge primarily from the observation of the dichotomy of ‘narrating time’ (Erzählzeit) and ‘narrated time’ (erzählte Zeit, Müller [1947] 2011) or one of its terminological derivatives (e.g. ‘narrating/reading time’ [Erzählzeit] and ‘plot time’ [Handlungszeit], Hirt 1923: 27–31; ‘narrating time’ [vremja povestvovanija] and ‘fabula time’ [fabul’noe vremja], Tomaševskij [1931] 1985: 226; ‘narrative time’ [Erzählzeit] and ‘story time’ [erzählte Zeit], Genette [1972] 1980: 33; ‘represented time’ and ‘representational time,’ Sternberg 1978: 14; ‘discourse-time’ and ‘story-time,’ Chatman 1978: 62–84; ‘text time’ [Textzeit] and ‘act time’ [Aktzeit], de Toro [1986] 2011: 113–15). Insofar as narrative is understood to be “the product of a series of transformations,” this classification is based on models of narrative constitution (Scheffel → Narrative Constitution) and presupposes an autonomous, linear, and homogeneous narrated time which is artificially transformed by the act of telling. The following historical delineation concentrates on this second tradition: analyzing the temporal deviation between story and discourse.

Formalist and Morphological Approaches

The study of time in narration was pioneered by Russian formalist and composition theorists as well as in German morphological approaches. In general, these approaches assume that there is a chronological order in a ‘story’ from which the arrangement of events in a narrated text deviates.

One element of Russian formalist Šklovskij’s aesthetics of ‘defamiliarization,’ for instance, is the differentiation between daily, prosaic time and ‘literary time’ (literaturnoe vremja). The laws of the latter “do not coincide with the laws of ordinary time” (Šklovskij [1921] 1965: 36). Šklovskij acknowledges the artificial and elaborate alignment of events as ‘temporal re-setting’ (vremennye perestanovki) in the narration (29).

Whereas Šklovskij only considers time occasionally, it is a pivotal aspect in the work of the so-called ‘composition theorists’ (cf. Aumüller 2009: 92). Petrovskij analyzes two categorically different aspects: on the one hand, he focuses on the interlacing of narration and time. On the other hand, he regards time according to the relationship between an abstract causal combination of the ‘material’ of a narrative and its concrete ‘presentation.’ For Petrovskij, each narrative has a temporal and causal dimension, whereas a description has neither. He distinguishes between ‘dispositional’ and ‘compositional’ modes of storytelling. In the first case, the events are arranged chronologically; in the second case, the main plot line is presented before introducing events (Petrovskij [1925] 2009: 71, 82). As these modes of presentation are not mutually exclusive, Petrovskij’s differentiation blurs the dichotomy of ‘fabula’ and ‘sjuzhet’ (Aumüller 2009: 106). Petrovskij’s interest in “Spannung” (suspense) transcends questions of textual composition by focusing on the effects of perception (Aumüller 2009: 108). Reformatskij refines Petrovskij’s analysis of the temporal arrangement of events by alluding to Aristotle’s theory of drama and in doing so systemizes narrations according to the quantitative classification of an either pronounced or an absent unity of time ([1922] 1973: 87–8).

Tomaševskij examines time on two levels. On the one hand, he regards time as a basic element of the ‘fabula’ while on the other, he analyzes time under the heading of ‘sjuzhet building’ ([1931] 1985: 226). He acknowledges that ‘fabula’ demands both chronological sequence and causal connection ([1925] 1965: 66). Tomaševskij goes beyond Reformatskij and Petrovskij, as he is the first to differentiate between ‘fabula time’ and ‘narrating time’ [1931] 1985: 226). He defines ‘fabula time’ as the ‘hypothetical time’ (226) in which the presented events take place; ‘narrating time’ is defined as the time it takes to read the text, which thus corresponds to the “‘size’ of the work” ([1925] 1965: 78). Tomaševskij further explores the ways in which ‘fabula time’ is constructed (cf. 3.1.1 supra). In doing so, he systematizes different forms of time designations (i.e. ‘absolute,’ ‘relative,’ ‘explicit,’ and ‘implicit’ forms of dating), an idea which is mentioned but not developed by Petrovskij ([1925] 2009: 71).

Although focusing primarily on the different character of epic and drama, Friedemann—the “founder of classical German narrative theory” (Schmid 2010: 1)—deals with time according to the arrangement of narrative material. In contrast to a chronological order of events, and contrary to the dramatic mode, it is the epic narrator’s specific ability to present events in a non-natural order. Friedemann claims that the constitutive epic mode of composition can be seen in the juxtaposition of events expressed through phrases like ‘meanwhile’ and ‘by now’ (Friedemann [1910] 1969: 99, 106).

Hirt is the first in German scholarship to introduce the dichotomy of ‘narrating/reading time’ (Erzählezeit) and ‘plot time’ (Handlungszeit; Hirt 1923: 27–31). Petsch, in his 1934 examination of ‘essence and form of narrative,’ devotes a section to time and space, acknowledging the ‘high relevance of temporality within the narrated action’ ([1934] 1942: 167). He differentiates between three intertwined aspects of time, although he does not elaborate on them in great detail: a) ‘longitudinal extension’ (Längserstreckung); b) ‘duration’ (Dauer); and c) ‘density’ (Dichtigkeit/Dichte). ‘Longitudinal extension’ is defined as an ‘objective time’ in terms of a ‘chain’ in which all events of the plot are combined and which can be seen as a virtually objective and chronological order beyond the narrative (168). ‘Duration’ is specified by Petsch as the relation between the ‘objective time span of concrete action’ and the recited narration (172–73). Finally, ‘density’ is categorized as “the strongest movement of the sequence or the peaks of the plot,” but it can also describe the art of relation between a story and the particular historical era (cf. 177). This third category, however, is not to be considered as a purely text-based feature, but rather as an ideological aspect.

Like Friedemann, Müller also explores the relation between events of the narrated world and their presentation. While Friedemann concentrates, in particular, on the order of events, Müller focuses predominantly on ‘time contraction’ (Zeitraffung; [1947] 2011: 75). Acknowledging the fundamental significance of time for narration, Müller distinguishes between ‘narrating time’ (Erzählzeit) and ‘narrated time’ (erzählte Zeit, 76). While ‘narrated time’ denotes the time span of a story, ‘narrating time’ determines the ‘physical time’ a “narrator needs to tell the story” according to the number of pages comprising a text (Müller [1948] 1968: 270). Müller pays particular attention to summaries and identifies “three main sorts of narrative time contractions” ([1947] 2011: 77): the explicit or implicit “skipping of time spans” (e.g. ‘a few years later’), “the contraction of time in large steps or main achievements in the way of ‘veni, vidi, vici’,” and the “iterative or durative traits” (e.g. ‘He rode out daily’).

Müller’s study of duration was pursued by his student Lämmert. In Lämmert’s view, the structure of a narrative is outlined by ‘deforming, disrupting, reordering or even avoiding’ the monotonous succession of the ‘narrated time’ ([1955] 1967: 32). Broadening Müller’s focus, Lämmert centers on three aspects: the structuring and organizing function of the narrator, different types of analepsis (Rückwendung) and prolepsis (Vorausdeutung) and the forms of speech within the narration.

Classical Structuralist Approaches

While French “high structuralists” Bremond, Barthes, and Greimas concentrate above all on structures of the ‘histoire’ level of narratives, Genette’s “low structuralism” (Scholes 1974: 157) systematizes, in particular, the relation between story and discourse. Todorov takes an interest in both levels. Since high structuralists follow formalist and morphological theory (i.e. Propp’s morphology of the folk tale) and pursue Saussure’s linguistic theory as well as Levi-Strauss’ anthropology, they focus mainly on subsurface structures. For them, time is primarily an element of a surface structure and is therefore of secondary importance.

Bremond, for instance, focuses on the “logical possibilities of narrative,” describing them with a both trinominal and binary model ([1966] 1980: 387). Aiming to create a model of principal ‘narrative roles,’ he implements a “complete formalization” and “complete dechronologization” of narrative (Ricœur [1984] 1985, vol. 2: 42). Greimas argues in the same vein. Time, however, does not play a role in his ‘fundamental semantics,’ which establishes a dichotomy of a surface structure (structure apparente) consisting of the linguistic material, and a subsurface level (structure immanente) of semantics and grammar ([1966] 1983).

Barthes outlines time when differentiating between ‘cardinal functions’ and ‘catalyzers.’ While ‘cardinal functions’ are comprised of both chronological and logical dimensions, catalyzers have only a “purely chronological functionality” ([1966] 1978: 94). Referring to Lévi-Strauss’ assertion that “the order of chronological succession is absorbed in an atemporal matrix structure” (98), Barthes stresses that “[a]nalysis today tends to ‘dechronologize’ the narrative continuum and to ‘relogicize’ it.” Therefore, structural analysis of narratives must “succeed in giving a structural description of the chronological illusion—it is for narrative logic to account for narrative time” (99). Although time is marginalized by Barthes and Levi-Strauss (for both there is just a ‘temporal illusion’), their use of terms shows significant temporal implications. They always refer to chronology in terms of a linear time, thus making concepts of ‘chronology’ and ‘temporality’ interchangeable.

In his application of the formalist dichotomy of ‘fabula’ and ‘sjuzhet’, Todorov differentiates between a ‘narrative as a story’ (récit comme histoire) and a ‘narrative as a discourse’ (récit comme discours), examining time in relation to the latter ([1966] 1980). According to Todorov, story time and discourse time are qualitatively different: whereas the latter is, to a certain extent, a linear time, story time is “multi-dimensional,” as several events can take place simultaneously (20). Following the Russian formalists, Todorov identifies this multidimensionality in the ‘temporal deformation’ (déformation temporelle) as a general artistic means. Todorov’s study brings about a more analytical approach to time, thus departing from the ‘detemporalizing’ tendencies of Bremond, Greimas, and Barthes.

In his examination of Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu, Genette presents a complex multilayered theory and new concepts which make it possible to analyze the variety of temporal relations in narrative discourse. In contrast to the purely theoretical studies of the high structuralists, Genette sets out to analyze a particular work of literature and develops his model from a close reading of Proust. In doing so, he synthesizes existing paradigms of Russian and German narrative theory and develops them into a more systematic model which employs specific terminology (cf. 3.1). Despite critical comments from proponents of postclassical approaches (e.g. Fludernik 1996; Gibson 1996; Dannenberg 2004, 2008), the Genettian system has been disseminated through pragmatic versions of this heuristic classification (cf. Schönert 2004: 138; e.g. Todorov [1968] 1981: 29–32; Rimmon-Kenan [1983] 2002: 43–58; Bal [1985] 1997: 37–43; Martínez & Scheffel [1999] 2012: 32–49; Lahn & Meister [2008] 2013: 133–51; Fludernik [2006] 2009: 32‑5). In addition to de Toro’s extensions of this taxonomy of time (cf. 3.1.2), Genette’s system has also been adapted to specific media such as film (Chatman 1978: 63–79; Kuhn 2011: 195–270).

Postclassical Approaches

Ricœur’s Narratological Hermeneutics

In contrast to high structuralists like Bremond and Greimas, who argue in favor of the ‘logification’ and ‘dechronologization’ of narrative (Ricœur [1984] 1985, vol. 2: 31–2, using Barthes’ terms), the connection between time and narrative is fundamental to Ricœur’s phenomenology. In his view, it is narration that enables the temporal nature of human experience: “time becomes human to the extent that it is articulated through a narrative mode, and narrative attains its full meaning when it becomes a condition of temporal existence” ([1983] 1984, vol. 1: 52). Ricœur devotes his study Temps et récit ([1983/1985] 1984/88) to a detailed categorization of the relationship between time, experience, and narrative, thus following up on basic considerations by Aristotle and Augustine. One of the study’s core aspects is that narration—by envisioning the absent and arranging a sequence of events—creates both a dissonance in the consonance of time and a consonance in the dissonance of experience. Ricœur is describing a process in which the narrated story and the act of narration are both necessarily intertwined with time. Ricœur’s ‘narrative hermeneutics’ is predicated on the idea that the relationship between narrative and experience can be considered in terms of a temporal sequence. Analogous to Augustine’s thesis of the threefold present—separated into the three aspects of past, present, and future—and in referring to Aristotle’s principle of mimesis, Ricœur highlights three dimensions in narratives which imply a circle of understanding in a time sequence ([1983] 1984, vol. 1: 52–87): ‘mimesis I’ (prefiguration) means, by and large, the world of action that precedes the narrative; in turn, ‘mimesis II’ (configuration) refers to this prefigured world of action. ‘Mimesis III’ (refiguration) denotes the recipient’s activation of the narrated actions and his or her realization of the ‘synthesis of the heterogeneous’ which is manifested in mimesis II. Subsequently, this activation may influence and change the reader’s actions (including the models that determine his image of himself and of the world in which people act) and may itself become the subject of another narration, i.e. another ‘synthesis of the heterogeneous.’

Ricœur’s philosophical and theoretical examination is completed by a broad analysis of “tales about time” in the second volume of Temps et récit. Here, Ricœur explores the fundamentally different ways in which temporal experience is configured and facilitated in literary narratives, basing his investigation on three “tales about time” (101): Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway (1925), Mann’s Der Zauberberg (1924), and Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu (1913–1927).

Cognitivist Approaches

While classical narratological studies focus almost exclusively on the text, postclassical approaches such as cognitive studies, possible worlds theory or computer-based models emphasize the reader’s constructive activity. Sternberg, for instance, deals with the distribution of a story’s material and its effect on the reader. Attention is therefore concentrated on the temporal re-arrangement of events between ‘represented time’ and ‘communicative time,’ resulting, as Sternberg puts it, in “suspense, curiosity, and surprise” (2001: 117). Sternberg also refers to suspense as an instance of ‘prospection,’ to curiosity as ‘retrospection,’ and to surprise as ‘recognition’ (117). These three effects all correlate with specific time structures: suspense “relates to the dynamics of the ongoing action, curiosity to the dynamics of temporal deformation” (1978: 65). Surprise, however, is produced by a “generic interplay between times, abruptly twisted,” and is thus affected by “the manner and point of disordering” (1992: 523).

According to Herman’s cognitive model, there are four necessary aspects of narrativity: ‘situatedness,’ ‘event sequencing,’ ‘worldmaking/world disruption,’ and ‘what it’s like’ (Herman 2009: 9). Time is central to event sequencing as the “temporal structure” of the content of a story is crucial for the recipient to be able “to construct mental representations of narrated worlds, that is, storyworlds” (19). For Herman, “temporal structures” are not only a feature of the text, but a result of the interaction between textual structures and the reader activating them.

Possible Worlds Theory

Following Leibniz and influenced by Kripke’s relational semantics, possible worlds theory is based on the notion that ‘fictional worlds’ are ‘possible worlds’ differing from the actual world by their “independent parallel ontology” (Ronen 1994: 198). Ronen understands a ‘world’ as a “constellation of spatiotemporally linked elements” and designates “temporal relations” as the “primary criterion for drawing the dividing line between worlds” (199). The basic condition for the entity of a ‘world,’ therefore, is defined by its temporal homogeneity. Although Ronen emphasizes that within a ‘fictional world,’ ‘fictional time’ is comparable to that of the ‘actual world’ and thus to ‘real time,’ she also argues that since “one terminological system of time-notions is applied to worlds of different ontological orders,” ‘fictional time’ actually deviates from ‘real time’ (201). Since ‘fictional time’ is “subjected to points of view and to discursive practices,” there is no objective time beyond a specific point of view and beyond tenses and “textual devices” (201–2).

Computer-based Research Approaches

Exploring how time in fictional and possible worlds is cognitively imagined, Meister develops a computer-based markup tool that tags and analyzes temporal expressions in literary texts. Meister’s aim is “to develop a new model of narrative time” in order to describe how readers “build the complex mental image of a temporally structured world” (2005: 109). Since the cognitive evocation of ‘represented time’ “feels perfectly real” (109), Meister terms his project—alluding to Barthes’ ‘reality effect’—“the temporality effect” (2005: 109; 2011: 171). He presents an application that visualizes the marked-up textual constructions of time.

Combining cognitive, psychological, and possible-worlds research, Mani develops an Artificial Intelligence (AI) framework in order to examine “reasoning about time and events an intelligent agent can carry out” (2011: 235). Whether the AI method can succeed in altering “the foundations of narrative theory” (235) is yet to be seen.

Topics for Further Investigation

Narratological research still privileges a Newtonian concept of time which cannot always be adequately applied to pre- and postmodern novels. In order to address this shortcoming, the following areas of research require further exploration: (a) on a textual level, a story-based theory of diegetic time that analyzes the complex and manifold concepts of time beyond an autonomous, linear and homogeneous narrated time (e.g. in ancient, medieval, and postmodern literature, diegetic time is often non-linear and heterogeneous and hence blurs classical narratology’s time concepts); (b) an inclusive and systematic approach that combines discourse- and story-centred studies; (c) a transhistorical and comparative approach which systematizes non-chronological concepts of time and examines how they are represented and constituted in pre- and postmodern literature; (d) comparative studies exploring transgeneric, transmedial and transcultural differences and similarities in the concept and representation of time.


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Further Reading

Medial Perspectives

  • Kukkonen, Karin (2013). “Space, Time, and Causality in Graphic Narratives. An Embodied Approach.” D. Stein & J.-N. Thon (eds.). From Comic Strips to Graphic Novels. Contributions to the Theory and History of Graphic Narrative. Berlin: de Gruyter, 49–66.
  • Pochat, Götz (1996). Bild – Zeit. Zeitgestalt und Erzählstruktur in der bildenden Kunst von den Anfängen bis zur frühen Neuzeit. Wien: Böhlau.
  • Powell, Helen (2012). Stop the Clocks! Time and Narrative in Cinema. London: Tauris.
  • Richardson, Brian (1987). “‘Time is Out of Joint’. Narrative Models and the Temporality of the Drama.” Poetics Today 8, 299–309.

Historical Perspectives

  • Heise, Ursula K. (1997). Chronoschisms: Time, Narrative and Postmodernism. Cambridge: Cambridge UP.
  • Jong, Irene J. F. de & René Nünlist, eds. (2007). Time in Ancient Greek Literature. Leiden: Brill.
  • Störmer-Caysa, Uta (2007). Grundstrukturen mittelalterlicher Erzählungen. Raum und Zeit im höfischen Roman. Berlin: de Gruyter.

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Very useful article. Thank you!
My PhD research focuses on the concept of time and space in the twentieth-century Russian and Georgian émigré literature.